Historical materialism (Marxism)

While the crude teleological determinism, historicism and reductive economism of official communist ideology, or orthodox Marxism-Leninism, has come to occupy the space of Marxist thinking, narrative environment design may still benefit from considering a particular understanding of historical materialism, as inflected by the western Marxist tradition, with its recovery of subjectivity, agency and culture. How might this be possible?

Jason Edwards (2010: 282-284) proposes that there are two ways of approaching an understanding of historical materialism.

The first is as a positivist science based on a humanist philosophical anthropology, human nature as the subject of history, and a teleological conception of history embodying a form of economic or technological determinism, as the successive development of modes of production.

The second is as the complex totality (as assemblage, a non-totalising totality?) of the material practices that are required to reproduce the relations of production over time.

Material practices, in this context, are taken to be regular forms of behaviour that are norm-governed and which involve a person’s relation to their body and to other bodies, as well as to experiential phenomena.

This complex totality is instantiated in the everyday lives of people and, in turn, the material practices of everyday life are implicated in the political and economic power of the state and the international political economic system.

Edwards suggests that historical materialism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, needs to shed its humanism, historicism, economism and teleological determinism. This means that a more de-centred and relational conception of the subject is required, perhaps through such notions as the intercorporeal and the intersubjective conceived in materialist terms, as is a less teleological and deterministic conception of historical change and societal organisation, as is available, for example, through notions articulated by complexity theory.

Historical materialism, in this case, would focus on the character of everyday life and lived space, as discussed by Lefebvre, for example, including its penetration by various media and technologies of communication, as discussed by Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, and particularly now internet-based, potentially participative, multimedia technologies, as well as its relationships to the ordering of cities, regions, states and the international political economy.

As such, historical materialism, as a way of understanding antagonistic struggles or dramatic conflicts, may be of value in thinking about the design of narrative environments.


Edwards, J. (2010). The materialism of historical materialism. In D. Coole and S. Frost, eds., New materialisms: ontology, agency, and politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 281–297.

edited 8 May, 2016 by Allan Parsons